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Title: Syncretism
Author(s): Matthew Baerman
Journal Title: Language & Linguistics Compass
Volume: 1
Issue: 5
Page Range: 539-551
Publication Date: Aug-2007
Abstract: Syncretism occurs where two or more distinct morphosyntactic values are collapsed in a single inflected word form. In the current literature, instances of syncretism are being increasingly cited to support particular models of morphology and feature structure. This article takes a critical look at the sorts of analyses that the data actually warrant, in particular showing the limitations of an approach that treats syncretism as dependent on morphosyntactic feature structure.

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Focus Questions   by Compass Editorial , 7-Jul-11
Dear Readers,

Please find below some focus questions submitted by the author Matthew Baerman. These questions are related to issues raised in the article.We hope one of them will peak your interest!

Best wishes, Compass Editorial

By definition, syncretism is a mismatch between an observable system of morphological oppositions and the covert system of functional oppositions (morphosyntactic and morphosemantic features) that underlie it. This raises a number of questions about the systems involved, as well as the nature of linguistic evidence in general.

1. Syncretic patterns can be attributed to the surface morphology on the one hand, or to syntax and semantics on the other. There is thus a trade off between morphological complexity and syntactic/semantic complexity. Which is preferable?

2. When speaking about lexical items, most people recognize a distinction between surface homophony (e.g. they’re vs. there) and polysemy (e.g. light ‘not heavy’ vs. light ‘not dark’), with a murky area in between. Can we draw a helpful analogy between this and syncretism?

3. We might want to distinguish between accidental homophony and morphologically systematic syncretism, and limit our linguistic speculation to the latter. But how can we tell which is which?

4. If syncretic patterns can be attributed to morphosyntactic feature structure, should this feature structure be thought of as universal? Or does each language have its own?

5. Conversely, if syncretism is encoded in the morphology, are there universals of morphological behaviour that it conforms to?
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